Challenge to U.S. West Coast coal shipments could have implications in Canada

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

While British Columbia wrestles with the issue of permitting Alberta oilsands bitumen exports from its ports, West Coast coal shipments are also coming into the sights of environmentalists on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

The Sierra Club is suing BNSF Railway, Peabody Energy and a four other coal producers claiming coal from railway cars being moved across Washington state is polluting its waterways in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act, the Globe and Mail reports.

The statement of claim filed this week in U.S. District Court alleges coal, coal dust and coal-contaminated water has flowed into Puget Sound and other bodies of water in the Seattle area, as well as elsewhere in the state of Washington.

The pollution is the result of material falling through holes in the bottoms and sides of coal cars, as well as spillover from the tops of the cars, especially when they rumble over rough sections of track or during climbs and descents, the suit alleges, according to the Globe.

The targets of the suit are rejecting the Sierra Club's claims.

A spokesman for BNSF, also known as Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway Co., dismissed the suit.

“Sierra Club’s lawsuit is meritless and nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to stop the permitting of multi-commodity export terminals in the Pacific Northwest," Gus Melonas told the Globe via email.

“BNSF has safely hauled coal in Washington for decades, and is committed to preventing coal dust from escaping while in transit.”

The coal targeted in the suit comes mainly from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, and is shipped to a coal-fired plant in Washington or on to Canada, the Globe said.

Peabody, which produced more than 140 million tons of coal a year from Powder River, told the Globe in an email that it would defend itself. Cloud Peak Energy, which is also named in the suit, like BNSF questioned the motive behind the suit.

“We are concerned that these accusations are part of the ongoing, well-funded efforts by anti-fossil-fuel groups to use litigation, media campaigns and other tactics to prevent development of one of our country’s most abundant natural resources,” the company said, according to the Globe.

[ Related: Coal exports boom but Greens set hurdles ]

The Sierra Club said in a news release that it had sent the defendants a 60-day notice in April after collecting evidence of the alleged pollution violations.

“BNSF and the other coal shippers had two months to figure out a way to stop polluting our waterways and communities with coal dust but they chose to do nothing to find a solution,” coal-export campaigner Cesia Kearns said.

“After years of railroad and coal companies playing the coal dust blame game, the last two months proved we can only expect more of the same from these companies. ”

Though no Canadian firms are named in the suit, it could have an impact because some shipments end up north of the border, Sierra Club spokeswoman Krista Collard told the Globe.

“It does definitely have implications for the trains that are going to Canada, we think,” she said. “What we are saying is they need to stop polluting waterways, period – however they need to do that. They are breaking the law.”

Plans to expand coal shipments into the Vancouver area are getting some push-back from residents and environmentalists.

Port Metro Vancouver wants to build a coal terminal at its Surrey docks on the Fraser River, where it would receive up to four million tonnes of coal annually from the Powder River basin. It would then be loaded onto barges and taken north to an export terminal on Texada Island, in the Strait of Georgia, for shipment to Asia.

Opponents challenged the proposal at Port Metro Vancouver's annual meeting this week, according to CBC News.

“This possibility of accepting one of the most filthy commodities on the planet into the heart of Vancouver just behooves me,” said John Cantrell.

The regional port authority has already approved an expansion of the Neptune Terminal in North Vancouver, across Burrard Inlet from downtown, The Tyee online news site noted.

[ Related: More U.S. coal exports destined for Vancouver's port, say environmentalists ]

Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester said that while sustainability is a key consideration for the port's operations, it has no mandate to decide what commodities move through the port.

“If you want to raise the question of what is traded, that's a question that needs to be raised with the federal government, not the port,” he said, according to CBC News.

“I don't have the ability to mandate even a public hearing, so there will not be a public hearing relating to the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal. But what we will continue to do is receive public input as we have done for a number of months now and we welcome that, and we'll continue to take that input into the review process.”

Silvester later told The Tyee he wasn't surprised by the number of coal-export opponents who showed up at the meeting or their tough questions.

"It's a very complex issue that's being hotly debated, and I think that's a healthy thing," he said. "But it's not out of keeping with the community feedback that we've had, both positive and negative.

"We didn't see many positive comments today, but we've had many, many emails and expressions of support."